Norton Museum Plays Up A History Of Toys

Oct 2, 2014

A look through Barbie commercials over the decades.
Credit Norton Museum Wheels and Heels Exhibit

The Norton Museum owns masterpieces from Picasso to Jackson Pollock to Paul Gauguin. But throughout October the Norton will also exhibit works by many unknown artists.

Although these artists may forever remain nameless, their works won't. The Norton will exhibit toys like Barbie, Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars.

The museum's deputy director, James Brayton Hall, says the Wheels and Heels exhibit explores the idea of design through these toys from the 1940s through today.

"Many museums nowadays are focusing on design and what design is saying about our culture," he says. "And both of these iconic toys speak to that story of post-war design in America."

When a museum puts together an exhibit of art it doesn't own, it has to find that art on loan. This exhibit has hundreds of pieces, too many to try and get. So the museum reached out to Matthew Bird from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Hear an interview with Matthew Bird below, and scroll down this page to see photos of the exhibit.

The Barbie exhibit covers the doll from its early days through the vast collection of international Barbie.
Credit Norton Museum Wheels and Heels Exhibit

With a budget of $15,000, Bird went to an unexpected source: eBay. 

"It turned out that eBay, with enough time, was a really great way to collect the objects for the show," he says. "It turns out that the eBay community, just in describing the toys they were selling, taught me an awful lot about the problems the designers had in creating these toys -- the longevity issues, the material problems, all sorts of information about how the toys were designed and what was considered and what worked and didn’t work."

Hilary Jordan, senior graphic designer at the Norton, had to figure out how to put hundreds of toys on display in the best way possible to tell their story. She understood that with toys, there had to be a chance to play.

"One of the things we tried to be aware of designing the show was that there were going to be a lot of toys behind glass, where no one can get to them, and you can’t touch it," she says. "So we wanted to give them hands on experience toward the end of the show where you can put your hands on it, and touch it, and figure out how it actually works yourself."

Matchbox ZOOM race track and Build A Road sets
Credit Norton Museum Wheels and Heels Exhibit

According to Norton personnel, the exhibit undoubtedly has been popular with children. But James Brayton Hall says he's surprised that it might have been even more popular with adults.

"These two toys turned boomers into consumers," he says. "These were, whether you were a little boy, if you play to gender stereotypes, a little boy playing with cars and a little girl playing with dolls, they taught you in many ways how to be an adult."

He admits to still owning many of his old Matchbox cars, and says many of his friends still do, too, "neatly in their cases... I think these things are still always incredibly relevant."

Wheels and Heels, The Big Noise Around Little Toys. Through Oct. 26 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach.

Some of the earliest miniature car collectibles date back to the 1940s.
Credit Luis Hernandez / WLRN
The earliest Barbie playhouses were not large plastic models but cardboard.
Credit Luis Hernandez / WLRN

Eventually carrying cases for Hot Wheels and Matchbox became collector's items themselves.
Credit Luis Hernandez / WLRN
Some of the first Barbie dolls had a limited wardrobe to choose from. Doll designers learned quickly that children wanted more options to dress their Barbies.
Credit Luis Hernandez / WLRN

Matthew Bird was most fond of the double-decker buses that had a longer shelf life than many other models.
Credit Luis Hernandez / WLRN
There have been more than one astronaut Barbies. But the first dates back to the early days of the space program. The astronaut suit in the package can fetch a few hundred today.
Credit Luis Hernandez / WLRN